Much of television’s best offerings in recent years have centred around teenagers. Caught between a growing emotional and physical maturity – often not progressing at an equal rate – their wildly racing feelings and thoughts make them ideal protagonists for stories, as they embark on completely destructive courses of action with the certitude that they are doing exactly what needs to be done.
Oftentimes, the result can feel like it’s not intended to be watched by today’s teenagers. Instead, it panders to the parents of soon-to-be teens looking at the storm ahead, or to 20-something millennials simultaneously relieved the most melodramatic period of their life is behind them, and nostalgic for it.
And while our appetite for nostalgia has undoubtedly grown during the pandemic years – recruiting the familiar feeling in the hopes of regaining comfort during a particularly uncertain and unsettling time – the new shows that have been created from this period are so often defined by their idealised depictions of the past, evenwhen they exist in the present (Please don’t make me sit through another Breakfast Club homage episode).
In the category of teen drama, ITVX’s latest release, Tell Me Everything, is an unmistakable outcast. The series depicts an at-times alarmingly accurate account of British late teenagehood that feels timeless, combined with the painful reality of depression in the social media age. It feels decidedly British, from its slang and dry humour to the hand-held shaky camera work. While there are hints of Noughties indie-sleaze present, the show’s contemporary sensitivity to stories spanning mental health, addiction, grief and queer identity cement it as a surprisingly realistic snapshot of life for young people in the 2020s.
Tell Me Everything follows 16-year-old Jonny, played by Eden H Davies, as he celebrates his last day of the summer holidays while masking his mental health struggles, before he experiences a sudden traumatic event. “Ever had a night where it felt like your whole life led up to it? The night that got you in a headlock, stuck its tongue in your mouth, knocked you down and then puked you back up again?” he narrates in the opening sequence as he spins, intoxicated, around in a waltzer at a local fair.
Undeniably, the show’s cast is its greatest strength. Eden delivers a faultless performance as Jonny in his debut TV role, expertly flitting between grief, angst and ecstasy with ease. Eden is joined byLauryn Ajufo and Spike Fearn as Jonny’s childhood friends Neve and Louis, while Tessa Lucilleand Ackley Bridge star Carla Woodcockshine as classmates Regan and Zia. Combined, the cast’s chemistry is evident, and when paired with witty scriptwriting and unexpected plot twists, the result is equal parts charming and comedic.
As teenagers themselves, the cast of rising stars is acutely aware of the importance that representation on screen can have. “I never related to any characters [on TV] growing up,” says Lauryn. “It was very different then, so I hope Neve gives young Black girls a character to root for and one that inspires them, because I didn’t have that.”
Tell Me Everything revels in the discomfort of change, following the characters as they begin at a new college and navigate the brief window where you’re not quite a fully-fledged adult, but certainly not a child anymore. Neve and Louis struggle as Jonny’s behaviours become increasingly erratic and he grapples with his feelings, while supporting characters Zia and Regan take on new challenges with online popularity and queer identity respectively, as they navigate the world while discovering themselves.
I think young queer people really deserve representation that celebrates and acknowledges who they are, but doesn’t make it their only personality trait.
“Portraying Regan’s story was so important to me,” Tessa explains. “I am queer, and I feel like there’s a lot more representation in young shows nowadays, but I wanted to make sure I was representing a side of the community that hasn’t been explored as much. I think young queer people really deserve representation that celebrates and acknowledges who they are, but doesn’t make it their only personality trait.”
The deeply mysterious Mei is played by Canadian actress Callina Laing and looks to challenge Effy Stonem’s devastating allure, as she provides Jonny with a new outlet for his grief. Refreshingly, the show refuses to gloss over the tedium of depression and anxiety, zoning in on the panic attacks, insomnia and isolation. Eden and other cast members met with mental health charity MIND to better understand how these conditions can be accurately yet sensitively portrayed on screen, a consideration that is rarely made, even in recent depictions of teenage drug abuse and suicide on screen.
“It all feels a bit surreal,” admits Eden of his debut role. “The idea of someone outside of my family watching it is weird, but I think it’s important to focus on the job and on researching because mental health is such a sensitive topic, it’s really important to be introspective and look at yourself. Knowing it was based on [the writer] Mark’s story loosely also felt like pressure, but we spoke a lot which helped.”
“It was nice that we’re all ‘up and coming’ so we didn’t have big established actors with us to make it daunting,” Lauryn adds. “We had so much fun on set, I think my biggest fear was that hour-and-a-half drive to Welwyn Garden City.”
Welwyn Garden City becomes the final, previously-unknown main character in the six-part series. The small town in Hertfordshire is home to its main characters along with its writer Mark O’Sullivan, who spent his teenage years attending the local college and dubs himself its “ambassador”, jokingly referring to it as “part suburbia, part Centerparcs.” “I thought it would be great to set it here, but I thought no one would ever let us do that. It’s just not cool, is it?” Mark explains. “But I’m so pleased we made the decision to set it there. When you get older, you often have a difficult relationship with the town you grew up in, especially if it’s a smaller place – you want to get away from it, it feels suffocating. A bit like you want to get away from your parents as you’re growing up. But actually, going back to it has been really lovely and I’ve realised it’s quite a special place. It’s odd, but special.”
While taking drives through Welwyn Garden City with his teenage daughter during the first lockdown, Mark was inspired to return to stories from his own childhood. Originally influenced by vintage coming-of-age dramas and John Hughes films, it was while reflecting on his father’s sudden passing when he was just 15 that the stage was set for the series and its lead.
The series was then brought to television royalty Robert Wulff-Cochrane and Camilla Campbell of Noho Film and Television, responsible for commissioning some of the best British dramas including Skins, Misfits, Top Boy, Fresh Meat and This Is England. This legacy does not go unnoticed by the cast, who are quick to mention the comparisons already made to cult classics. “I loved Skins,” says Carla, “I don’t even know if I could relate to their lives, but I wanted to be in their friendship group so bad.”
“Especially because I’m from Bristol, I watched it filmed in my school and used to imagine what it would be like to be in it,” Tessa adds. “But to be fair, I’ve spent many Skins-esque days on College Green.”
Unlike Skins, however, I doubt that this series will receive the same complaints for unrealistic depictions of teenage relationships, parties or drug use. As, unlike its predecessors, there’s a distinct difference in how Tell Me Everything treats its teenage characters and their traumas – rather than trying to shock audiences by uncovering the illegal antics of its central characters, the show expresses sympathy and support for its most vulnerable.
“One thing the series does really nicely is it shows some really lovely friendships,” says Tessa. “I really hope it encourages people to open up to their friends. 16 is such a specific age in terms of developing those friendships, and we see definitely see friendships but we also see isolation and the impact that has in the show, so I really hope it encourages people to not be alone with it. Your friends are there, they’ll look after you.”
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